A SHORT HISTORY OF CANADA
By Desmond Morton
Canadians believe that their history is short, boring, and irrelevant.
They are wrong on all counts.
So historian Desmond Morton begins his Short History of Canada, a work
- now in its fifth edition - that has become a popular standard.
Still, some of us may need a little convincing.
One of the difficulties facing Canadian historians, especially the ones who
write popular books on the subject, is the lack of dramatic moments. Take1759.
What is its real significance? There never was a "conquest" of New
France. The union of Upper and Lower Canada was the result of horse-trading
between Imperial powers in Europe, the French ultimately preferring the island
of Guadeloupe to the land Voltaire dismissed as "several acres of
Because Canada has always been a country dependent on the fate and fortune of
foreign powers, its history has, to a large extent, never been its own. As
European influence waned, that of America waxed. Today one could make a strong
argument that Canada is less independent than it was before Confederation. Ours
is a tradition of being taken for granted and falling into line - reaffirmed as
recently as Bosnia, or the last time the Bank of Canada matched the Federal
Reserveís move on interest rates.
Canadian history also seems uneventful because that is the way we wanted it.
Canadians have been described as Americans who didnít rebel, a definition
which makes inertia into a virtue. And yet the charge sticks: Canadians are a
people of the status quo. Our comfort with establishments - political,
financial, artistic - is the major cultural difference between us and the United
States. Instability - revolution - is foreign to our understanding. Commenting
on Laurierís first election victory Morton writes: "Like most
revolutions, the political upheaval between 1886 and 1896 changed symbols, not
substance." Coming from anyone other than a Canadian historian such a
statement would be incomprehensible.
We donít like change. Our greatest Prime Ministers, according to a recent
survey, were simply the ones who managed to hang around the longest (and we have
a habit of keeping them for a long, long time). Yet how many of these leaders
were truly inspiring, or "great"? More often than not they were merely
the safe, familiar choice. Was Mackenzie King ever more personally popular while
in office than Jean Chretien - a man we seem to merely tolerate?
But maybe we didnít want them to be great. The key to political survival in
Canada is usually regarded as a mix of situational ethics - see our long history
of hypocrisy over free trade - and compromise - a cherished Canadian euphemism
for doing nothing and simply hoping things will get better. The Manitoba Schools
Question was punted by a succession of administrations in the nineteenth
century, and was still being tinkered with in the late1970s. In both World Wars
conscription was avoided like the proverbial third rail until after the issue
had become practically irrelevant.
Yet, paradoxically, it is this very continuity that makes Canadian history
relevant. Our history is nothing if not predictable, not repeating itself so
much as staying on course. Things donít happen in Canada; Canada is always
happening (albeit slowly). Even our Constitution remains a work in progress.
Arguing for the relevance of Canadian history Morton writes "The choices
Canadians can make today have been shaped by history." As an example,
"The governors of New France launched arguments that federalists and
sovereignists repeat in present-day Quebec." But even this may be less a
repetition shaped by history than the same argument being continued.
A Short History of Canada is a good overview for the general reader and
is the kind of book one would like to see in every Canadian home. Yet one also
wishes Morton would stop with the revisions and make a final edition, perhaps
taking Canada up to 2000.
The revisions Morton has made fall into two categories. The first are mainly
cosmetic adjustments of style. Yet even slight changes in wording can result not
only in different emphases but different meanings. Compare the following two
passages describing the post-War baby boom:
Not since the 1880s had Canadaís population grown more slowly. But by
1947, natural increase alone was adding two per cent a year. Women were leaving
the work force not through coercion - that had been tried in 1919-20 and the
numbers of working women had actually climbed - but through choice.
That is from the second revised edition of 1994. In the latest edition the
same paragraph reads:
Only in the 1880s had Canadaís population grown so slowly. That
changed. By 1947, natural increase alone added 2 per cent a year. Women left the
workforce through choice because a single salary could support most
There is more here than an attempt to spruce up the language, and it is not
obvious that even the style is an improvement.
Then there are the updates. In some cases these have been inserted into the
text, reflecting new understandings of the past. In an earlier edition, sticking
with the example of post-War population growth, we read that "Between 1945
and 1957, a million and a half people came to Canada, including war brides,
concentration camp victims, even thirty-five thousand refugees from the 1956
Hungarian uprising." After "concentration camp victims" in the
new edition Morton adds "perhaps some of their oppressors," an attempt
to deal with recent headlines that is too vague and qualified to be an
The all-new material takes us to Lucien Bouchardís retirement from the
political stage. But revised editions that attempt to bring the story up to the
minute are ill advised. The events of 2001 are too fresh to be dealt with
effectively in a general history. As a result, the book moves much too quickly
through its final chapters, rattling off information without any real attempt at
analysis and dissolving into banalities like "Canadaís climate and
scenery make it a good place to live."
Canada is a good place to live. At least on that we can all agree.
Review first published June 30, 2001.